Doing Things

A week ago I related the story of my student who passed her Maturita exam. It was awesome and being a teacher is a huge part of my life here but it is far from the only part. The single-handedly best thing about being in a place for a longer period of time is all the cool stuff you get to do, especially with the locals.

Do you know where Sokolov is? If you do, it is probably because of me being here. I know I didn’t have a clue where Sokolov was when I got the email last April. I literally google-mapped it that first day, remarking casually, “hmmm, it’s pretty close to Germany…” Did you know one of the prettiest little castles in the Czech Republic (a place full of castles by the way) is a 20 minute bus-ride from Sokolov? It’s called Loket and I got to explore it yesterday.

The teachers in nearby Cheb planned an awesome event to close out the year for their English club. They called it “The Thing” and kept it as an immense secret for over a month. What it ended up being was a day-long scavenger hunting, question-answering, silly-photo taking extravaganza. We were put into teams of 3-4 and were set loose on the quiet, cobble-stoned streets of Loket. We took photos jumping on a stage. We reenacted a castle siege. With spoons. Some students stripped to their skivvies and jumped in the river (double points!) We imitated statues we saw and posed with goats. It ended with a relaxing afternoon hanging out by a camp fire as a big group.

I only have a month left here in this country that has been my home since August. But as I sat by a beautiful, lazy river yesterday, eating a giant Czech sausage while chatting with Czech students I thought to myself, “Life is nothing if not interesting…”


Travelin’ Thoughts

I don’t like traveling.

I know, I know. I am a vicious liar. Since I graduated in 2007 here is my places I’ve been list. South Africa, Botswana, California, Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, London. How can I possibly hate travel?

It takes time and money. It involves big crowds of people I don’t know and so I’m more likely to make a sarcastic comment out of their earshot than talk to them. Delays happen (volcano anyone?). You leave things places (good bye favorite jacket, cell phone adapter, favorite sweatshirt). Traveling home from wherever you went is always awful because you regret leaving wherever you were.  I have been places but I like to stay somewhere an extended time if I do go. Hence this whole being on foreign continents a year at a time business.

So this weekend I traveled across the country that I have been living in all year. My organization has teachers in the center (Prague), east (Ostrava), and West (Me!). I hadn’t gotten a chance to get out to Ostrava, see the city and the teacher friends I know. A shortened Friday allowed me to embark on a 7 hour bus and train journey to the other side of the Czech Republic.

I have to be honest. Ostrava isn’t that awesome. I felt like they showed me the whole city in about thirty minutes. It was certainly a city but not much seemed to be going on. Despite this, I had a great time. Why? I was with friends. The biggest reason to travel this year hasn’t been to see cool things or do fun things (though both have happened in great supply). It has been to see and connect with the people I know. See their flats, talk about their experiences and see how they are doing. And have lots of fun together.

I have said pretty much my whole life that as long as I have a roof over my head and I’m well-fed I’ll be happy. I need to change this a bit. I’m still committed to the food part. Feed me well I’ll love you forever. But where I live doesn’t matter. Give me a tent in a swamp, a lean-to in a forest, a communist-era flat in Europe with the most ridiculous nonsensical bathroom set-up I have ever seen. Just give me people who are awesome, who I care for and who care for me. I’ll be perfectly content. And I will travel whatever distance necessary to get to where they are.

Did that just happen?

I just had a great weekend. Let me explain.

I left home in Massachusetts last summer in early July. I have been in the Czech Republic since early August. Since before I left my mom has been discussing various possibilities of what a visit here would entail. In the last few months we finalized things. My mom would come to London for a week and stay with my sister and then come to Prague on Friday night. I would pick them up, show them Prague, my town and my schools and see them off Sunday back to Prague. As the days approached it was fairly exciting. I have never had family visit me overseas in the past few years. I would get to show them where I have been living and share my life with them a bit. It would be great.

And then the volcano that cannot be named struck. Days before my mom and sister’s flight. It was quickly surmised that the trip wasn’t going to happen. My sister would try to get a flight back to London ASAP but my mom was left to cancel her trip. I was disappointed to be sure but I felt worse for my mom. All the expectation was gone and she was left with a week of regret and sadness. Totally lame.

I went about my business last week and decided to plan a weekend in Prague anyway. See friends and the city. It would be nice. On Thursday I noted my sister was catching a flight back to London. I was happy for her. On Friday I woke up like normal and taught a couple classes. I then went online and was shocked to see a note from my sister saying my mom got a seat on her flight too via standby. More shocking: they would be in Prague that night as originally planned.

Just crazy right? This past weekend has been great. I spent time with my family in Prague, my town of Sokolov, and the capital city of my region. I took them to restaurants, showed them my flat and schools and really enjoyed myself. It was over far too quick. But it was just awesome.

I will end with two small insights. Meeting a lot of different people since graduation I have realized how important family is. When people have good family relationships things are pretty sweet. On the flip-side I have seen few things that can cause more heartache and emotional damage than a dysfunctional family dynamic. I am truly thankful for how my family supports me and loves me. But know that even if my family wasn’t what they should be, my relationship with my creator is an anchor that is something I can never get from something here on earth. Lastly, it was humbling to be reminded today that going overseas is not just about YOU making sacrifices. Your family, whether they support you or not, give something up too. Some handle it better than others but it is never easy. I have about two more months left in this year here but this weekend will be seared in my memory for a long time to come.

Home from Hungary

I returned back to Sokolov from my spring break tonight. My legs are sore from oppressively long bus rides but I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind.

First some background. My organization, TeachOverseas (ESI), has teachers in a few different regions around the world. My region is Central Europe. The countries teachers are currently in include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. I live and teach in the far western region of the Czech Republic named West Bohemia (or as we like to call it, “West Bo”). This spring break saw me return where I visited in October, to Budapest, but also farther afield to the small town of Sarospatak. This town lies in the extreme northeast of Hungary and is a four-hour train journey from Budapest. It represents the other side of the ESI-universe over here. We have two teachers there this year and I thought it it would be good to visit them for a few days (they didn’t have the past week off like us in the Czech Republic.) And it was.

An extremely brief recap of my trip. I got even more experience on Prague public transport en route to Hungary. I then proceeded to educate myself a bit better on the geography and transportation options of Budapest. I saw teacher friends and enjoyed some of the best hospitality I have ever experienced on two consecutive nights. I went to an awesome church service singing Hungarian songs in English and Czech. I survived a train ride across a country where I knew nothing of the language. Little old Hungarian ladies helped me. Note to Hungary railways: invest in signs at your stations. Thanks.

I delved deeper into the history of Hungary during the week. A short summary: First imagine America, big, strong, won most wars, proud to a fault and deeply patriotic. Now imagine a country that used to be big but has never won a war and directly related to this fact now has around 33% of its ethnic population outside its borders. Welcome to Hungary.

I saw a really cool castle and spent some great time hanging out and reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving time. No doubt this was a holiday. I slept a lot and relaxed even more. But it was also a time of fellowship and I think I benefited greatly from it. To be honest, I’m not terribly excited about school on Monday. But I will be ready and rested after this deeply fulfilling, all too-brief week.

I did it…I rode the bus…

This week my ESI teachers and I will reach the halfway point of our year here overseas. At times like these it is good to be a bit reflective on where we are and where we are going. Today I want to talk about adjusting to the culture here.

I have learned a lot. I’ve learned enough language and culture to feel reasonably comfortable in a restaurant and to read a menu. I’ve learned how to fill out the class book at school for every class and to sign it every time I do. I know where mostly everything is in the supermarket, though there are still surprises from time to time. I have gotten a lot of experience on the domestic and international train and buses here. But one thing I have not dared to attempt is…ride the local buses in my town of Sokolov.

Let me explain. I teach at two schools every weekday that are a mile and a half apart. My flat is very close to one and not so close to the other. So everyday I go to one school, teach in the morning there and then walk across town to the other and then walk home. My daily round-trip commute, if I don’t include any detours, is about 3.1 miles. Utilizing the local bus system here in my town would seem like an obvious choice. It’s cheap and it goes everywhere. So why have I walked for the past five months?

It’s mostly fear of the unknown. Learning stop names and bus routes and numbers and times, it’s hard to master, especially if things are in a different language. But that was the small thing. What I was really afraid of was stepping on bus trying to pay and not having a clue how to do it or how to ask. So I just avoided it and walked. Frankly, I’m kind of tired.

But last night I finally asked a teacher who has been here a long time what to do and expect.  Our train station is a 30-minute walk from our flat. It is no fun at all. I decided to try it. I waited for the bus, got on bus, paid for the bus, rode 10 blissful, not cold, sitting minutes in the bus. I got off and turned my head and my lovely green flat building was right in front of me.

The moral of the story? It pays to take risks when you live in a new culture. Because let’s face it…walking in the cold stinks.

Retreating, ESI-Style

Note: Educational Services International is TeachOverseas international name. When I say ESI I mean TeachOverseas. Apologies for any confusion.

This is a bit overdue, especially for me, but I wanted to tell you a bit about what I got to do two weeks ago.

Being with an organization like ESI has many benefits, both tangible and intangible. One of the most tangible benefits is the retreats that we have four times during the year. The biggest one just happened the weekend after Thanksgiving. All the ESI teachers from the Central Europe Region meet together for a long weekend to fellowship, worship, eat a giant Thanksgiving meal and reconnect a bit. There were over fifty people total.

It was really great to see teachers I hadn’t seen for a few months, some since training. In fact, some I hadn’t met at all yet since they had not been able to get to training during the summer. It is pretty cool to see all the people God has brought together in this region of this world to teach and to do his work. I had lots of fun. I played in a raucous game of American football one afternoon and went for a short but refreshing run with some teachers the next. Running with other people is a pleasure that I don’t often get to enjoy so it was nice. A very cool thing: I got to sing worship songs in ENGLISH. After 3+ months of Czech worship it was nice to really understand things again.

ESI has provided a great support network for us here overseas. It’s not as close-knit as Thrive was but that would be impossible to replicate in this situation. In any case I am truly thankful I am with this organization and that they “have my back” so to speak while I’m over here.